Origins and History of Consciousness Summary

Adrienne Rich


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Origins and History of Consciousness,” as the title suggests, is an account of the poet’s search for what poetry means to her and how it is connected to personal issues in her life. Appearing in The Dream of a Common Language, one of Rich’s most critically acclaimed works, it represents an important summary of themes and concerns at the center of her work.

The first section consists of what appears to be a relatively straightforward description of a room, but it rapidly becomes clear that this description incorporates many symbolic layers. The blank walls, for example, represent the erasure of women writers from history, an absence of tradition that the woman poet must confront. The search for origins, and foremothers, that the poet undertakes also recalls the archaeological explorations of Diving into the Wreck. The social change movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s helped to create an atmosphere in which questioning the past and the need for change—both personal and political—were widely accepted.

Rich’s work echoed these concerns and gave poetic expression to ideas that many were struggling to articulate, both in Diving into the Wreck and in The Dream of a Common Language. In the latter collection, Rich understands that sexuality is only one of the ways women express a commitment to each other. (These ideas were later developed in her influential essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” first published in 1980.) The theme of a community of women began to figure more...

(The entire section is 640 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Dickie, Margaret. Stein, Bishop, and Rich: Lyrics of Love, War, and Peace. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Gwiazda, Piotr. “’Nothing Else Left to Read’: Poetry and Audience in Adrienne Rich’s ’An Atlas of the Difficult World.’” Journal of Modern Literature 28, no. 2 (Winter, 2005): 165-188.

Halpern, Nick. Everyday and Prophetic: The Poetry of Lowell, Ammons, Merrill, and Rich. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

Keyes, Claire. The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

O’Reilly, Andrea. From Motherhood and Mothering: The Legacy of Adrienne Rich’s “Of Woman Born.” New York: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Ostriker, Alice. Writing Like a Woman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Spencer, Luke. “That Light of Outrage: The Historicism of Adrienne Rich.” English: Journal of the English Association 51, no. 200 (Summer, 2002): 145-160.

Yorke, Liz. Adrienne Rich: Passion, Politics, and the Body. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1998.